Review: Design Museum Shoots And Scores With Designing The Beautiful Game

Football: Designing the Beautiful Game, Design Museum ★★★★☆

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 6 months ago
Review: Design Museum Shoots And Scores With Designing The Beautiful Game Football: Designing the Beautiful Game, Design Museum 4
A nostalgic wall of shirts. Image: Londonist

"It's just people being paid too much money to kick a ball around a field" is a criticism often levelled at football, by those who struggle to find beauty in the beautiful game. You've got to feel sorry for them.

It is, of course, infinitely more: a delicious rush of weekend dopamine; an anthem-filled pilgrimage to a turfed temple; the sense of being part of something that transcends workaday life.

Little of that has come to pass by accident.

Pele's Puma Kings. Image: Felix Speller

Design Museum's Football: Designing the Beautiful Game is a peek into the kit room of football, delving into how the sport has evolved into something more than a sport — a spectacle viewed by over half the global population during each World Cup.

Hand-stitched leather balls of the late 1800s evolved into the fused panels of the flawlessly-round Teamgeist. While pioneering players nailed rudimentary studs into the bottom of clonking footwear and hoped for the best, boot making developed into the art of fine-tuning every millimetre of the shoe's surface for the likes of Pele and Ronaldo. The days when linesmen flagged free kicks by waving intricately-embroidered flags have given way to the play-back scrutiny of VAR.

A scale facade model of the Alianz Arena (left) and a presentation model of Chelsea's Stamford Bridge. Image: Felix Speller

Then there's the football kit, that blazing beacon of loyalty. A great multicoloured wall of shirts overflows with nostalgia: the 'fruit pastille' top David Seaman wore in Euro 1996; the Newkie Brown striped shirt made iconic by Alan Shearer and his achingly tame goal celebrations.

And it turns out that some of football's great iconicism actually did come about by serendipity. Brazil's famous golden kit was only introduced after the team lost to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final. The losers' white shirt was instantly decried as unlucky; the yellow jersey was the winner of a resulting redesign competition.

Designs for a new Brazil national kit, Aldyr Garcia Schlee, 1953. Image: Felix Speller

Football: Designing the Beautiful Game leans heavily on the collection of Manchester's superlative National Football Museum (which is free to visit, by the way), but the focused curation of the Design Museum is as tight and precise as a Messi free kick. This show should appeal to everyone from the kind of footballing 'ultras' who slap up stickers all over their rivals' grounds, to those who know Gary Lineker best as 'that guy who flogs crisps on the telly'.

Ann empty goalpost on an arid, grassless pitch
Goalposts in Tunisia, in a photo essay by Neville Gabie, who has a fixation with improvised goalpoasts. Image: Neville Gabie

The show addresses the beautiful game's ugly problems, too. 'Calling cards' that comically ape train tickets and Monopoly cards bely the ghoulish violence of 1980s hooligans, who'd drop these at the site of a 'triumphant' brawl.

Football must ceaselessly learn from its many misdemeanours, returning to the drawing board over and over. For a long time, the FA refused to award caps to female football stars, prompting them to stitch their own. Now there's a Nike Pro hijab, designed to make playing football easier for Muslim women. Inclusivity is slowly, belatedly finding its place in the sport.

Hillsborough memorial banner by Peter Carney and Christine Waygood. Image: Felix Speller

Nothing underlines the significance of design in football like the exhibition's sombre section on the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, in which 97 fans were crushed to death. From this horrific moment blossomed the revolutionization of the world's stadiums, into safer spaces for fans to follow their teams and chase footballing dreams.

As the former AC Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi once said, football is 'the most important of the unimportant things in life'.

Football: Designing the Beautiful Game, Design Museum, tickets £16.80/£12.50, until 29 August 2022.

Last Updated 12 April 2022